NegusWhoRead
Entertainment & Culture
They Don’t Want You To Win – A Mathematical Explanation of Why The #OscarsSoWhite

Each year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences casts their votes for what they consider the best that cinema has to offer for that given year. That award ceremony is affectionately known as “The Oscars”. This year, as in the past, there’s been some dust up over the lack of diversity, spawning the social media hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. As the NegusWhoReviewsMovies, I had to take on this topic with a little bit of research and common sense.

Spoiler alert: You don’t really care about the Oscars and they don’t care about you… yet.

I’m an avid movie watcher, but the Oscar nominations had me wondering if I’d even seen real movies this year. I saw 19 of the 32 film nominated films represented in the main categories (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress and Best Director) this year. The breakdown is included below. I’ve bolded the entries marking the movies that I watched prior to hearing the nominations.

Best Picture Best Actor Best Actress Best Supporting Actor Best Supporting Actress Best Director
The Big Short Bryan Cranston, Trumbo Cate Blanchett, Carol Christian Bale, The Big Short Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight Adam McKay, The Big Short
Bridge of Spies Matt Damon, The Martian Brie Larson, Room Tom Hardy, The Revenant Rooney Mara, Carol George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road
Brooklyn Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant Jennifer Lawrence, Joy Mark Ruffalo, Spotlight Rachel McAdams, Spotlight Alejandro G. Iñárritu, The Revenant
Mad Max: Fury Road Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl Lenny Abrahamson, Room
The Martian Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn Sylvester Stallone, Creed Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs Tom McCarthy, Spotlight
The Revenant
Room
Spotlight

 

For you non-math majors that’s 59%, not even a passing grade. Of the films I missed, most of them didn’t come to my preferred local theater, and I wouldn’t have even enjoyed them.

From the nominees that I did see, all of them are notable movies worthy of their nominations. But we’re not here to talk about the movies that made the cut. We’re here to talk about all of “our” films that didn’t make it in.

I don’t even know how to look through the records for “black movies” that won Oscars. I also don’t know how to quantitatively account for diversity in film, but lets see if we can extrapolate some generalizations from the last 10 winners for Best Picture. 

2005- Crash 2006- The Departed 2007- No Country For Old Men 2008- Slumdog Millionaire 2009- The Hurt Locker
2010- The King’s Speech 2011- The Artist 2012- Argo 2013- 12 Years a Slave 2014- Birdman

 

Of these 10 movies, 4 feature stars of color in the main or supporting cast that would be eligible for a nomination.  (A bit of trivia for the record, in the Best Actor category the award, at least for the last 10 years, has always gone to a historical or biopic. 2015 had a notable lack of those for black cinema, except for Straight Outta Compton, which was more of an ensemble cast.)

Moving on, let’s focus in on the 14 actors and actresses of African descent who have been bestowed an Oscar for leading and supporting roles. Bolded names/years represent lead actor/actress roles. Let’s see if we can spot a pattern.

1939- Hattie McDaniel

Role:Servant

1963 Sidney Poitier

Role: Handyman

1982 Louis Gossett, Jr. 

Role: Army Officer

1989 2001 Denzel Washington

Role: Slave/Soldier, Crooked Cop

1990 Whoopi Goldberg

Role: Clairvoyant

1996 Cuba Gooding, Jr

Role: Football Player

2001 Halle Berry

Role: Wife of Death Row Inmate

2004 Jamie Foxx

Role: Ray Charles

2004 Morgan Freeman

Role: Veteran Boxer

2006 Forest Whitaker

Role: Dictator

2006 Jennifer Hudson

Role: Singer

2009 Mo’Nique

Role: Abusive Mother

2011- Olivia Spencer
Role: Servant
2013- Lupita Nyong’o
Role: Slave

 

In a broad way most of these roles are either subservient or antagonistic.

As a viewer of multiple genres I can say there is a dearth of black actors and films being recognized with nominations for the same reason action films and comedies aren’t generally recognized: the Academy doesn’t value them. “The Matrix” argualbly elevated the art of storytelling in cinema, but only received 4 nominations: Sound Editing, Editing, Visual Effects, and Best Sound (If you haven’t seen it, you’re 16 years behind. Trust me — you can catch it on TNT  this weekend). Other than an award for documentaries, there aren’t any genre specific awards, but most of the winners come from dramas, and nostalgic drama at that.

The Oscars spends half their awards ceremony on categories the average person doesn’t even care about. When’s the last time you actively noticed “Production Design” in a movie? Do you even know what that is? Original Score? Short Documentary? Do you care about any of these? The only Original Song nominee that made it to the radio was “Earned It” from 50 Shades of Grey. Did you see that movie? I did.  It was horrible. So horrible that it could probably disqualify the song on account of bad taste.

For the record, there was a category for Best Comedy… in 1928, the only year they gave that award. For a number of years there was a category proposed for stunts. It was rejected every time. 

This is a good point to note that the voting committee is full of old(er) people. In the year 2012 (which is the latest I can find numbers for) the median age of Academy member is 62, which means that the average person on the committee has lived my life twice and still has two years to spare, so of course we’re not watching and enjoying the same movies. They were also 94% white, 77% male, with 86% being over the age of 50. Let’s just say if you’re a woman of color you’ve probably got a better chance of marrying someone on the committee than actually making it on the committee yourself. This helps explain the penchant for voting for historic films and biopics. The voting mass is just indulging in nostalgia when they vote.

So let’s look at it this way, I never invite my vegan friends to have lunch at McDonald’s. Sure they have a salad or two on the menu but you’re not getting the kind of service your tastes deserve. In many cases the voting members don’t value what you value, it’s that simple. What’s interesting is — their opinions have no real authority. They aren’t movie reviewers  The only thing that happens when someone gets an award is the ability to charge more. These aren’t doctors or firefighters.

A number of actors have declared their intention to boycott the awards ceremony. If you want the Academy to know how much their opinion isn’t valued, just don’t watch the show on February 28. Put a dent in their pocket and The Academy might stop focusing so much on the “arts and sciences” of film and think a bit about the economics.

About the author

Jeremy Harriot is a techie, cinephile and picky-palette foodie. He’s the co-founder and Proto-Geek at Geek Street Collective. You can find him plane hopping, local shopping or on the internet redefining the landscape of film critique. Follow him on twitter at @techieondeck

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  • John Sims

    Very well written article and the analogy of taste was a seamless explanation